Ontario’s top human rights official urges reforms to detention of non-criminal foreigners

TORONTO —; Jail cells are no place for vulnerable immigrant detainees who have neither been charged with, nor convicted of, any crime, Ontario’s top human rights official says.

In an open letter to the province’s community safety minister and copied to his federal counterpart, Renu Mandhane calls for major reforms to a system in which thousands of non-citizens are jailed each under immigration laws each year – and several die.

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READ MORE: Dead immigration detainee Francisco Astorga was arrested stealing food, said he was suicidal

“There is a fundamental, systemic problem with using provincial correctional facilities designed for persons detained under the Criminal Code to detain immigrants who are neither criminally charged nor serving a sentence,” Mandhane, head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, says in her letter to Yasir Naqvi.

“Provincial correctional facilities have neither the infrastructure nor the staff expertise to handle immigration detainees in a way that accommodates their unique needs.”

Among other things, the letter argues detainees receive limited in-jail access to interpreters or supportive programming. Among those Canada Border Services Agency routinely transfers to jails are the mentally ill, the letter notes.

“Immigration detention is particularly damaging for vulnerable non-citizens – such as people with existing mental or physical disabilities, asylum seekers and victims of torture,” Mandhane says. “Immigration detention often causes new mental health disabilities.”

Overall, the commissioner says, the situation cries out for change.

READ MORE: Immigration detainee’s mysterious death is the second in seven days

The rights commission is not alone in its calls for reforms. Civil liberties, rights and mental-health groups along with activists have all called for changes to how people detained under immigration laws are warehoused pending deportation or seeing their cases resolved some other way. The United Nations has chastised Canada for its policies related to the locking up of asylum seekers and migrants.

In response, Naqvi said the province was already working on changes to corrections, and part of a discussion with the commissioner he had about the changes focused on the immigration-detention issue.

“I look forward to reviewing the recommendations she’s provided,” said Naqvi, adding that the federal government has to be involved.

“It’s their responsibility. We have no say into who comes into our care and custody when it comes to immigration detainees. It’s a decision made by Canada Border Services Agency.”

A spokesman for federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the border agency uses provincial facilities where federal holding centres don’t exist or for high risk cases. The government was looking at ways to improve the system and is reviewing the program, the spokesman said.

A report from the University of Toronto’s law faculty last year made numerous recommendations Mandhane urges Naqvi to act on.

Key among them is to ensure the detainees are held in the “least restrictive setting” appropriate for a non-criminal population that also serves to protect the public, and to allow regular monitoring by the Red Cross.

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Other recommendations include negotiating with Ottawa for money to ensure appropriate housing and services for the detainees. The report also wants border agents present at provincial facilities in which foreigners are detained.

Also Tuesday, relatives called for answers in last month’s death of Chilean detainee Francisco Javier Romero Astorga in Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, Ont.

“They refuse to send us the autopsy results and have not answered some very fundamental questions,” Esteban Romero, Francisco’s brother, said in a statement from Chile. “We need answers and no one is giving us any.”

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Astorga was the 14th person to die in immigration detention since 2000 – cases frequently shrouded in secrecy – and the seventh in the last three years, according to the End Immigration Detention Network.

Also last month, a refugee, Melkioro Gahungu, 64, convicted of the manslaughter of his wife, killed himself in a Toronto detention centre as he awaited deportation back to Burundi.